Eric’s Note: This is an interview with Siegfried Hansen, one of the finest contemporary street photographers who hails from Hamburg, Germany. What I love about his work is how he is able to combine strong graphical elements in the streets – and make simple yet beautiful images. See his fine images and advice for street photographers in this interview below.
Great to have you Siegfried it is an honour. I have followed your work for several years and have always loved your visual imagery. To start off, can you share how you first discovered street photography?
About 10 years ago, I was a “typical” snap shot photographer. I used to shoot a lot of sunsets with my Minolta X300 in both black-and-white and colour. Then I visited an exhibition of Andre Kertesz, his pictures completely changed my way of looking at my environment.
I was fascinated by the way he captured moments and his ability to present them subjectively.
Since that day in 2002, wherever I go, I carry my camera with me so I can catch all the moments I see and like, in particular graphical image elements which represent harmony.
Much of your work is very visual in terms of the lines, shapes, forms and compositions. They feel very “fine art”. Do you have any other training when it comes to art or photography?
I did not have a formal academic training in art or photography. However, during the last 10 years of daily practice and extensive studies of photo literature, I developed my own style and techniques how to see and frame graphical compositions best. Thus realizing situations many others may not be aware of and capturing them within seconds became second nature.
Obviously a photographic memory does help doing it.
There are many things you learn by training and discipline,
but overall you should internalize both theory and technique to a point that you can fully concentrate on the moment when taking pictures. I navigate through Hamburg, my hometown, almost blindly on certain routes, focusing on things that are happening around me. It’s all coincidental, nothing is preset.
Can you also share what exactly you look for when shooting in the streets?
Usually when I start my tours I don’t have any particular plan or destination. I let myself drift and be open to situations and things that happens which might interest me on the spot. I call this “Drifting” or the “Zen philosophy”, where the way is the destination.
You have lots of photos where the faces of people are obscured. Why do you hide their faces? Is it more of an issue with German privacy laws? Or something else?
To me it is more interesting, but also more difficult to photograph people having their faces obscured or shadowy. You force the viewer of the picture to take a closer look and maybe to be puzzled or intrigued, to create a reaction. This in itself would be an achievement. Privacy laws are of course an issue you have to comply with in Germany too, being a photographer.
I always try to be abstract in my work and I think it is important to illustrate people in a respectfully manner.
Who are other artists and photographers you draw inspiration from?
I love the simplicity of your images, but also the sense of mystery and intrigue. How would you say your work reflects your personality and how you see the world?
That is not easy to answer. I’m not sure if my pictures reflect my personality. Every good photo embodies certain characteristics of the photographer. But probably those who know me well could answer this much better.
Your work seems to have shifted from black and white to mostly colour now. Can you share how your work differently in colour vs black and white?
There isn’t really a big difference. Black & white photos tend to have a stronger visual impact then colour pictures. However, I don’t plan in advance which type I want to use, it is pure intuition. Later, in post processing I would decide which colouring technique would reflect best the moment and my emotions.
Many of your photos don’t even have people in them. How do you feel about those photos compared to the photos you have with people in them? Are you particularly drawn more to one style or the other.
Well, as I mentioned before, I’m very drawn to structures, compositions and ambiances. You don’t necessarily need people for those.
On the contrary: the lack of people in a human environment or the focusing on only one person can amplify emotions or moods, like the “loneliness” in a big city for example. To me there is no big difference.
Can you share 3 of your most memorable photos and share the stories behind them ?
I took this picture during a holiday trip to New York in 2003, when I saw the fisherman at the peer. He caught the fish and released him from the hook, threw his fishing rod out again quickly. Meanwhile, the fish was suffering from its pain. I saw this surreal scene. For me it became a picture with contents extracted from the context.
Hamburg 2008. I saw the woman standing at the corner with a tree in her hands. At first I wanted to take a picture because it’s not often you can see someone walking on the street with a tree. So I followed my intuition and started to walk behind her.
The plant she carried was interesting enough, but I wanted an additional element in order to underline a connection and to raise the visual expression. So I followed my intuition. And when I suddenly saw the potted plant, the situation was complete. I believe instinct and curiosity are the basis for interesting street photography.
This picture was taken in Venice 2004. The scene was almost ready because on the left side of the picture the scene was completed. But the right side of the picture was still empty which meant that I had to wait for a “real” person to turn around the corner to complete the scene.
I’m particularly attracted by the artistic connections between different contexts within a chosen visual boundary.
What are some new projects you are currently working on?
I’m currently busy compiling an illustrated book that represents the variety of aspects of my work. In addition, to that I obviously keep on working on my photographic style – and again, I consider the journey being the destination.
I emphasize more and more to keep my mind free from themes or needs and to be fully open to detect interesting scenes – thus trying to capture them in compelling pictures.
I would consider myself lucky if I manage to produce 10 good pictures a year.
What is some advice you would offer to street photographers out there in terms of finding their own style and voice, and any other tips.
1. Well, first to have a camera with you wherever you go.
2. Be intuitive, don’t plan. Take a first shot fast not to lose what attracted you. Situations change in a split second. You can try to take other shots later to optimize the composition.
3. Be prepared at any time, be attentive.
4. I find it very helpful to walk through neighbourhoods over and over again to get very familiar with the area.
5. It is very important to consider street photography as something that you do for pleasure and personal enjoyment.
6. Nevertheless, I have the goal to create that one picture that stands out telling the story.
7. I think that today’s trend heads toward creating series of pictures or a photo reportage.
8. As a street photographer you would require a lot of experience and time to create a “signature” out of single images. I often leave the photos aside in some folder for weeks or months before taking a closer look at them. This allows me to gain an emotional distance and different approach.
Who are some contemporary street photographers you recommend us to check out?
There is a tremendous amount of very talented photographers.
Any last words you would like to share?
Life passes before our eyes in three dimensions.
As a street photographer you aim at capturing special moments and to eternalize them on a two dimensional media.
Outstanding pictures would include a “fourth dimension” the “the artist’s essence”.
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